My grandmother, Barbie, died within days of John Kennedy’s assassination, although without the conspiracies, the wall-to-wall television coverage or the grassy knoll. I had just turned five in November, 1963, and had the mumps when Kennedy was killed and Barbie died of breast cancer. Since I had to stay home from kindergarten, my only strong recollection of the period is the cancellation of Captain Kangaroo and Romper Room, which seemed a bit dramatic to me. I was sorry that Barbie—and for some unknown reason, that’s what I called her—was gone and that the President’s kids were so sad, but that was no reason to deny me children’s programming.
I have no real memories of Barbie, and that makes me sad, especially since she created two of my most prized possessions in the world, ones that sit right now over Sam (is a dog)’s head as he sleeps on our bed. For the years 1921 and 1922, Barbie kept diaries which somehow got passed on to me. She’d grown up in Manchester, NH, a doctor’s daughter, and apparently kept diaries throughout her girlhood. These two, though, happen to be from when she was a student at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. She lived on campus during the week, and went home every Saturday at noon, after classes had ended, giving her one foot in the cosmopolitan if backward city of Manchester, and the other in the very beginnings of the Roaring Twenties in a college town, where many of the male students had been part of the War to End All Wars. Heady stuff indeed.
After these two diaried years, she married my grandfather, a distant man, moved around the state with his career, had a daughter (my mom) and a son, and settled in Durham. She went through my mom’s bunch of miscarriage-laden pregnancies and supported my parents when they threw in the towel and adopted me. Then I got the mumps, JFK was assassinated and Barbie died, leaving Gramper alone in the world.
Although I never talked with my mom about it, I’m sure she and my dad felt an obligation to include Gramper in every family activity. After all, he was a widower in his late 50’s and needed to be kept busy. Luckily for me, his busy-ness consisted mainly of drinking Old Fashioneds, talking about fishing spots in New Hampshire’s North Country, and donning a silent look of disdain whenever he saw me. I said “luckily” for a reason—being looked at with disappointment by my angry grandfather was much better than having him talk about my shortcomings, which were many, and suggesting to my parents I needed more “discipline,” which I suspected meant punishment. As I’ve said elsewhere, Gramper was not my favorite relative.
Still, I never wanted to make him cry.
It was a Tuesday evening some months after Barbie’s death. Isn’t it odd I’d remember that, but there it is. Gramper was having dinner with my parents, my kid sister, Jennifer, and me, and I was trying to make conversation. Gramper’s favorite sound was silence by a trout stream, so he didn’t appreciate my effort all that much. Still, I beat on, prattling on about this and that.
“John McDonald threw up at school today. It made the whole corner of the room smell bad until the janitor came in with a mop and some other smelly stuff to clean it up with. I wonder how one smelly thing can disappear another smelly thing. I’m the best reader in kindergarten. Mrs. Granger even said so. Then she said if I was half as good at behaving as I am at reading, I’d be an angel. The thing is, you have to die to be an angel, right, Mom?”
My mother looked uncomfortably at me, nodded, and suggested we change the topic. I thought the topic was either my reading ability or the smell of vomit, so I continued talking.
“Speaking of dying . . . Gramper, do you think Barbie is coming back or is she dead for good? I kind of miss her.”
In my memory, my motives were pure, so I was shocked when my father grabbed my tiny wrist and pulled me away from the table, while my mom wrapped her arms around Gramper, who’d dissolved into weeping. Jennifer, being three or so, started crying too, so we had the oldest and youngest people in the room with tears and moans coming out of them. I was in the next room, my father looking at me with a mixture of sympathy and horror, wondering, I’m sure, how one little boy could be so cute, so innocent and yet do such an evil thing. I wanted to say I was sorry, but I didn’t know what I’d done, except make my grandfather finally show an emotion other than disdain for me.